The catalogues of yesteryear

Published 8:18 pm Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Shopping from the comfort of home is a lot older than the Internet. For many of us, it began with Sears.
There was a time, a century ago, when you could buy a house from Sears Roebuck, and my father purchased a manure spreader from Sears before World War II.
By the mid-20th century, though, Sears had refined its offerings to accommodate a growing middle class. Americans wanted appliances, home furnishings, “store bought” clothing and, as income increased, more toys for their children.
The mail order giant printed seasonal catalogues that went to millions of customers and potential customers, but none was more than the Sears Christmas Book, later renamed the “Wish Book.”
Thumbing through a 1950s Christmas Book is a great way to recall an era when Americans were learning to live with a bit of luxury, when Christmas meant home appliances, new clothes and a dizzying variety of toys.
Some of the promotions from those days would make most of us chuckle today. For example, Sears suggested that Dad “ease her housework” by giving Mom a new ironing board for $12.49. Today, Mom would probably throw the ironing board at Dad if it showed up under the tree Christmas morning.
If Mom already had a good ironing board, then there was always a pink clothes hamper with a matching bathroom scales.
And if there was a special woman in a man’s life, but they hadn’t tied the knot, there were economy-priced engagement and wedding rings, always a hit at Christmas time. A real diamond ring (with a very tiny diamond) and matching engagement ring could be bought for as little as $40 and as much as $325. Or, for the big diamond look without the price, there was a Zircon set for $40.
Dad’s Christmas gift could range from a table saw priced under $100 to a matching set of cuff links and tie clasp from about $10. He could be outfitted in a top line wool sport coat for $19 and companion slacks for another $10. And he could go out for the evening smelling very manly with Old Spice, sold in various combinations of products for under $5.
But it was the kids who flocked to the Christmas Book with hopes that Santa was listening.
Girls were encouraged to do “girl things” back in those days. There were page after of dolls — Revlon, Tiny Tears, Sweet Sue, Happi-Time, Babee-Bee and many others. There were doll clothes, doll furnishings and doll houses.
Girls could also learn to cook on a real electric stove. (It was replaced a few years later by the still-popular Easy Bake, which was a lot safer.)
Girls could also receive a nurse’s uniform, but doctors’ kits were generally recommended for boys.
In an even clearer example of gender bias, Sears offered microscope kits and chemistry sets for “young men of science.” Sorry, girls.
More logically, young boys of that day could have a Fort Apache set, complete with attacking Indians and defending cavalrymen, or a Roy Rogers ranch. As they grew older, boys could have their own Boy Scout pup tent, complete with floor and door.
Most boys, at some point, would wish for a Daisy BB gun, the basic ones priced at less than $5. And many of them also dreamed of owning a Lionel train set, the basic one priced at $339.25.
Boys and girls were encouraged to learn in that pre-computer age. There were chalkboards (remember those?) and working junior typewriters.
All of Sears catalogues brought modern luxuries to American homes, but it was the Sears Wish Book that did much to shape the secular elements of Christmas as we know them today.

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